Level 42 is an English band formed on the Isle of Wight in 1979. They had a number of UK and worldwide hits during the 1980s and 1990s.
Their most successful single in the UK was “Lessons in Love“, which reached number three on the UK Singles Chart, and number 12 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart, upon its release in 1986. The earlier single, “Something About You” was their most successful single in the United States, reaching number 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
After much success as a live and studio band in the 1980s, Level 42’s commercial profile diminished during the early 1990s following a series of personnel changes and musical shifts. After disbanding in 1994, the band reformed in 2001.
Mark King and the Gould brothers (Phil and Rowland, the latter generally known by his nickname “Boon”) were all brought up on the Isle of Wight and played together in various bands during their teenage years. Phil Gould went on to study at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where he met keyboard player Mike Lindup in a percussion course. Both musicians found that they shared musical heroes: Miles Davis, John McLaughlin, Keith Jarrett and Jan Hammer.
By 1979, Phil Gould and Mark King were both based in London and became involved in Robin Scott‘s pop project M. While working with M, they became acquainted with Afro-French keyboard player Wally Badarou, who played synthesizer on M’s US number one single “Pop Muzik“. In late 1979, Phil Gould introduced Mark King and Mike Lindup to each other, and all of them began playing together in loose rehearsal sessions, developing their own jazz-funk fusion style. The developing band’s original guitarist was Dominic Miller (later to find fame playing with Sting), but he was replaced by Boon Gould on the latter’s return from working in the United States.
Initially, instrumental roles were flexible, with Boon Gould also playing bass guitar and saxophone and Lindup doubling on keyboards and drums. Mark King was primarily a drummer (although he also played guitar) but had recently sold his drum kit to pay for transport back to the UK after an ill-fated European venture. With Phil Gould and Boon Gould established (respectively) as the most accomplished drummer and guitarist in the quartet, King opted to learn bass guitar instead. At the time, King was working in a London music store. A notably flexible musician and quick learner, he had observed visiting American funk players demonstrating the thumb-slap bass guitar technique and developed his own take on the style in a matter of weeks.
The developing band (at this point, entirely an instrumental act) took the name Level 42 and settled on a working line-up of King (bass guitar, percussion), Lindup (keyboards, percussion), Boon Gould (guitar, saxophone) and Phil Gould (drums). The name of the band is a reference to the novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, in which “42” is the answer to “the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything.” Having maintained their links with Wally Badarou, Phil Gould and Mark King invited him to work with Level 42. Although he never formally joined the band, Badarou would become a fifth member in all but name: co-writing songs, playing keyboards and synthesisers in the studio and co-producing the records.
After they were seen jamming together, the band were invited to sign to Elite Records (a small independent label) in 1980. They were also encouraged to branch out into vocal music. Having considered recruiting a singer, the band eventually settled on giving King and Lindup the vocal role. The two men developed a complementary style, with Lindup’s falsetto frequently used for harmonies and choruses while King’s deep tenor led the verses (although Lindup would also sing entire songs on his own). Lyrics were generally written by the Gould brothers while King, Badarou and Lindup concentrated on Level 42’s music.
The Elite Records single “Love Meeting Love” brought the band to the attention of Polydor Records, with whom they signed their second recording contract. In 1981, they released their first Polydor single, “Love Games”, which became a Top 40 hit. They then cut their critically acclaimed, self-titled debut album, which was an immediate success throughout Europe. The band quickly established themselves as concert favourites, taking advantage of the high performance skills of all four members. Polydor capitalised on the band’s success by releasing a second album, The Early Tapes later in the same year. This was a compilation of material from the Elite Records period (and is also known by an alternate name, Strategy).
In 1982 Level 42 released their third album The Pursuit of Accidents. This was a further development of the Level 42 formula, maintaining their instrumental jazz-funk skills and styling but also experimenting further with pop songs. Both of the singles from the album — “Weave Your Spell” and “The Chinese Way” — charted. The latter in particular rose high in the charts and gained the band a much wider audience than before.
A fourth album, Standing in the Light, was released in 1983. Produced by Larry Dunn and Verdine White (of Earth, Wind & Fire), this album began a new era for the band, being less experimental and jazzy than previous releases. It provided them with their first UK Top Ten hit, “The Sun Goes Down (Living It Up)“. Notably, the album featured no instrumental tracks, with the band now focusing heavily on songs. (The band would not release another instrumental on an album until 1988’s Staring at the Sun).
The 1984 album True Colours veered stylistically between funk, power pop, mid-tempo rock and moody ballads. It yielded the singles “The Chant Has Begun” and “Hot Water“. The latter was a Top 20 hit in Britain and a Top 5 hit in the Netherlands where the band became popular (the song reached also No. 7 in Belgium). During the same year, Mark King released his first solo album Influences on which he played the majority of the instruments (with a guest appearance by Aswad‘s Drummie Zeb, and with Lindup guesting on additional keyboards).
By this time, Level 42 were known for their power as a live band (as showcased on the 1985 double live album A Physical Presence). For live gigs the band added saxophonist Krys Mach, who toured with the group from 1984 to 1988 and contributed to some album recordings.
The next studio album, World Machine, was released in 1985. By this time, the band had moved on from their original pure jazz-funk sound towards a much more mainstream pop/R’n’B sound, with King’s bass and Lindup and Badarou’s chugging keyboards serving as templates for pop songs such as “Something About You” and “Leaving Me Now“, which were both UK Top 20 hits (Top 40 hits in the Netherlands).
Significantly, “Something About You” was also their first (and only) US Top 10 the following year; also reaching the Top 5 in Canada and the Top 20 in Italy and New Zealand. “Leaving Me Now” was the second hit from this album, peaking at No. 15 in the United Kingdom but less successful in Europe. Elements of Level 42’s roots could still be found in the funky “Coup d’État” and “Dream Crazy” on the UK version of the album, as well as a long instrumental track named “Hell,” which was also recorded during the World Machine sessions (This last track did not see the light of day until the early 2000s as an MP3 download on the original Napster).
World Machine gained positive reviews from critics, with AllMusic journalist William Cooper, in a retrospective review, describing it as “one of the finest pop albums of the mid-’80s.” During the recording of the album, the first major tensions between Phil Gould and Mark King began to surface over musical direction, production and their personal relationship. This clashing led to Gould leaving the band for a week. Allan Holdsworth‘s drummer Gary Husband was lined up as a potential replacement, but Gould and King’s dispute was subsequently patched up and the group went on to enjoy their most successful year to date.
The “Lessons in Love” single arrived in early 1986. The song appeared on 1987’s Running in the Family album. The song was an international hit and became the band’s biggest seller. It gave Level 42 their first number one in Denmark, Germany, Switzerland and South Africa, increasing the band’s popularity considerably (it also placed at No. 2 in Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden, No. 3 in the UK and in Ireland, No. 4 in Austria, No. 10 in Norway, No. 12 in the US in 1987, No. 18 in New Zealand and No. 22 in France).
Further singles from Running in the Family continued and built on the band’s existing success: “To Be With You Again” (No. 6 in the Netherlands and in Ireland), the ballad “It’s Over” (No. 3 in Ireland and No. 7 in the Netherlands) and Running In The Family‘s title track (No. 1 in Denmark, No. 3 in the Netherlands, No. 4 in Ireland, No. 5 in Switzerland, No. 7 in Norway and No. 9 in New Zealand). The album itself was a major international success, reaching the Top 10 in numerous countries.
Keeping up the momentum, the band played at the Prince’s Trust concert in June 1987, with Eric Clapton standing in on lead guitar for a performance of “Running in the Family“. King and Lindup also performed with artists including Ben E. King on “Stand By Me” and George Harrison and Ringo Starr on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps“.
Boon Gould left the band in late 1987, following a support slot on a Madonna tour. He had been suffering from nervous exhaustion and also wanted to leave the lifestyle of a constantly touring musician in order to settle down and spend more time with his wife and children. However, his relationship with the band remained amicable, and although he would not return as a performing or recording member he continued to write lyrics for Level 42 following his departure. He was temporarily replaced by Paul Gendler (an experienced session player who had previously been the guitarist for Modern Romance) for a six-week headlining tour and for further support slots with Tina Turner.
In December 1987, midway through the tour, Phil Gould also left Level 42. Like his brother, he was suffering from exhaustion, but his relationship with King had broken down once again and they now found it difficult to work together. Phil was also reportedly dissatisfied with the band’s direction in terms of their newer “pop” sound. To complete the tour dates, the band hired Prefab Sprout drummer Neil Conti to fill in.
Following the tour, Level 42 recruited Gary Husband as the band’s new full-time drummer. He in turn recommended Steve Topping as a replacement guitarist. However, Topping and King’s personalities clashed and Topping eventually left the band in early 1988 after initial writing and rehearsing sessions in Dublin. Most of the next Level 42 album, Staring at the Sun, was recorded without a permanent guitarist. Rhythm guitar on the studio recordings was handled either by the band’s old friend Dominic Miller or by an uncredited Mark King. In April 1988, towards the end of the sessions, the band recruited lead guitarist Alan Murphy (a session guitarist who had worked extensively with Kate Bush and had also been a member of Go West).
Staring at the Sun was released in 1988, reaching number 2 in the UK and the top ten in several European charts. It included the hit-single “Heaven in My Hands” (number 12 in the UK and also top twenty in the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland). Boon Gould had co-written many of the tracks with King, Lindup and Badarou, while Gary Husband was credited with his first co-write with King on “Tracie” (a tribute to King’s childhood sweetheart). To promote the album, Level 42 embarked on a four-month European tour, culminating in six sell-out nights at Wembley Arena. These latter dates were recorded for what would become the band’s second live album, Live At Wembley (eventually released in 1996).
Although the band seemed to have maintained their momentum and recovered well from the split of the original lineup, they were about to be hit by a serious tragedy. Unknown to the rest of Level 42, guitarist Alan Murphy was suffering from AIDS, something which he himself may have been aware of before joining the band. At the time, his previous band Go West had been stalled by internal disagreements, and one of Murphy’s reasons for joining Level 42 was to ensure that he spent his last days playing the music that he loved. During 1989, Murphy contracted pneumonia: weakened by his existing condition, his decline was rapid and he died on 19 October 1989.
Devastated, Level 42 took a year off to regroup and rethink. To cover the gap and to fulfil the band’s contract with Polydor Records, Level Best (a greatest hits compilation) was released at the end of 1989; also marking a decade since the band’s beginnings. During the break, Mike Lindup also recorded and released his debut solo album, Pino Palladino on bass and Manu Katché on drums).(featuring Dominic Miller,
80s Studio albums
- Level 42 (1981)
- Strategy / The Early Tapes (1982)
- The Pursuit of Accidents (1982)
- Standing in the Light (1983)
- True Colours (1984)
- World Machine (1985)
- Running in the Family (1987)
- Staring at the Sun (1988)